On this day in 1780, the Battle of Colson’s Mill is fought and won by Patriot forces in North Carolina. The skirmish has been all but forgotten by history books, but did it offer the “‘death knell’ of further active Loyalist or ‘Tory’ militia support in much of the Carolinas,” as one history professor has argued?
Perhaps the skirmish shouldn’t be forgotten, after all.
At the time, Americans were working to overcome a discouraging loss at Charleston. The surrender of that city was demoralizing, and it led the British to believe that they’d effectively wrapped up their conquest of Georgia and South Carolina.
They were soon proven wrong.
The first early indicator of British overconfidence was a skirmish at Ramsour’s Mill. In that clash, an outnumbered force of Patriot militia defeated more than 1,000 Loyalists. Soon, Tories were fleeing the scene, little realizing that only 110 Patriots were left to defend the battlefield.
How disheartening for those Loyalist forces! And how much more discouraging when another defeat occurred at Colson’s Mill a month later.
One Loyalist, Colonel Samuel Bryan, had responded to the events at Ramsour’s Mill by working to move into friendlier territory. He also wanted to unite his forces with British Major Archibald McArthur. In the meantime, American Brigadier General Griffith Rutherford was working to stay informed on Bryan’s movements. He sent Colonel William Lee Davidson to intercept Bryan before he could rendezvous with McArthur.
Davidson failed to reach most of Bryan’s men before their rendezvous, but he did catch some of them. He heard that a group was still gathering at Colson’s Mill. He marched his men quickly toward this point, hoping to launch a surprise attack.
It worked! Sort of. Davidson’s men were discovered a little bit too early. Nevertheless, they fought hard and gained the upper hand in the engagement. The Loyalists soon began to scatter and retreat. “Being in their own neighborhood,” one American officer wrote, “where they knew the country, most of them escaped.” Nevertheless, the American victory was stunning, particularly since they’d been outnumbered.
Patriots had earned yet another startling victory in the Carolinas, only two months after the setback at Charleston.
Unfortunately, there was also bad news: Davidson had been wounded in the conflict. He was the only man wearing a uniform, so he was an easy target for Loyalist fire. His injury was grave, and it was a small miracle that he wasn’t killed. It took him a few months to recover, but he was back on his feet in time to fight at the Battle of Cowan’s Ford in February 1781. Tragically, he lost his life at this later battle.
Surely Davidson’s near-death experience at Colson’s Mill showed him the value of his own life? And yet he was willing to risk his life, again, a mere seven months later.
Wow. Another early American hero literally giving his all so that we might have FREEDOM.
Daniel W. Barefoot, Touring North Carolina's Revolutionary War Sites (1998)
O C Stonestreet IV, The Battle of Colson's Mill: Death Knell of the Carolina Tories (2014)
Richard Plumer, Charlotte and the American Revolution (2014)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2019) (3d ed.)
The State Records of North Carolina (Walter Clark ed. 1901) (Vol. 19)
William Alexander Graham, General Joseph Graham and His Papers on North Carolina Revolutionary History (